NEW YORK — Nobody involved was surprised that Martin Scorsese’s latest — the gothically inflected psychological thriller “Shutter Island” — is chockablock with references to everything from the Bronte sisters to “I Walked With a Zombie.”
“Marty has loved film all his life,” said Hollywood vet Mike Medavoy, one of the film’s producers. “He’s out there promoting film preservation, he knows everything about movies. I’ve known Marty since the ‘70s and worked with him a few times before, so I don’t think any of those allusions were surprising.”
Neither was Scorsese’s choice of star: Leonardo DiCaprio, who at the age of 35 has acquired both the physical presence and actorly heft of the great leading men — and who is starring in his fourth Scorsese picture. A collaboration that began with “Gangs of New York” (2002), included the Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” (2004) and then seemed to hit a crescendo via the much-honored, multiple Oscar-winning “The Departed” (2006) has taken a turn into the dark, dank corridors of magical-realism, Val Lewton-esque lyricism and elusive Hitchcockian psychology.
“I was very intrigued by the screenplay,” DiCaprio said on a recent afternoon in Manhattan. “It was very much a throwback to some of the great detective films of the past, whether it was ‘Vertigo’ or ‘Out of the Past,’ which Marty screened for us. At first glance, it was a thriller, a genre piece with twists and turns.”
But what he discovered, along with his director and his co-stars — who include Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer and Michelle Williams — was that the filmmaking took them to “places we couldn’t have foreseen. It got darker and darker and more emotionally intense than we ever expected.”
It doesn’t exactly begin with flowers and sunshine: On a steel-gray day in 1954, two men — U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) — get off a boat at Shutter Island, a facility for the criminally insane. A female inmate, a multiple murderess, has pulled off a seemingly impossible escape from the island’s Ashecliffe Hospital and Teddy is intent on tracking her down. The oppressiveness of the place and the quasi-ghoulish personalities of the medical staff (notably, a German-accented doctor played by Max von Sydow, who reminds Teddy of his part in the liberation of Dachau) are compounded by the progressively macabre and hallucinatory goings-on in a locale that author Dennis Lehane said was based on a place he visited as a kid.
“There was an actual minimum-security mental institution in Boston Harbor,” he said, “but it was connected by a bridge. It was called Long Island, actually — which would have been a really crappy title. I just don’t think it would have had the same shiver — ‘Lonnng Islaaand.’”
But for all the eerie, otherworldly embellishments, to its star, the fright factor was not the most important aspect in making the film. “It’s being publicized as a thriller with a surprise ending or terrifying elements, and is very much a genre piece,” DiCaprio said. “But at the end of the day, it’s what Martin Scorsese does best: Portraying something about humanity and human nature and who we are as people. That’s what makes it stand out, and makes it different from being a normal genre piece.”
“Marty directs like a lover,” said Kingsley, whose Dr. Cawley seems like a progressive psychiatrist, especially for the Eisenhower era. “Everything is held together by affection — for his actors, his crew, his material, for cinema. What perhaps you don’t see on the page, what did emerge, is an extraordinary level of tenderness between the characters.”
For his part, Scorsese seemed more at home talking about the Laeta Kalogridis screenplay (adapted from Lehane’s novel) and how it provoked the filmmaker whom producer Brad Fischer described as “a walking encyclopedia of movies.”
“I think the trappings of the story, the situations, the storm, two detectives, the escaped patient, automatically bring certain genres to my mind,” Scorsese said, “certain images that go back several hundred years. I had all this to draw upon. The issue was having them work for our story and at the same time refer to other films, other types of films. In other words, the more you see, and the more you see of the past, the more you can draw upon that, and the more you can make the present and future.”
Scorsese’s future, to judge by rumored projects, will include several more pictures with DiCaprio. A Frank Sinatra biopic, another about the young Theodore Roosevelt and an adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (which will inevitably draw comparisons to the DiCaprio-Spielberg film, “Catch Me If You Can”) are all said to be in the works. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is processing “Shutter Island.”
“It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” DiCaprio said. “And it wasn’t until we were on set that we discovered that. There’s only so much that can be written down on paper. I have to say, there were a few weeks there that were among the most hardcore film experiences I’ve ever had. I think Marty would say the same.”
IT TAKES TWO: GREAT ACTOR-DIRECTOR PAIRINGS
Like pop songwriting (Lennon and McCartney), comedy (Burns and Allen) and firearms (Smith and Wesson), American film has its iconic partnerships, which have, not coincidentally, produced some of our greatest cinema. Like any marriage, film teams are not always forever — who knows how long Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio will continue their dance? But while you can’t list them all — Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, for instance, or Judd Apatow and Paul Rudd — here are some director-actor partnerships that have burned hot and bright.
JOHN FORD AND JOHN WAYNE — Perhaps the indelible actor-director team, Ford made Wayne’s career by casting him in “Stagecoach” (1939) and they went on to make more than 20 films together, including “The Quiet Man” (1952), “The Searchers” (1956) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).
FRANK BORZAGE AND MARGARET SULLAVAN — His career was epic (1913-61), hers was brief (16 features, some TV), but in their time together they created incandescent melodramas and fantastical romances — including “The Mortal Storm” (1940), “The Shining Hour” (1938), “Little Man, What Now?” (1934) and “Three Comrades” (1938, with a script by F. Scott Fitzgerald).
ELIA KAZAN AND MARLON BRANDO — Brando had become a Broadway star via his sullen, brutish Stanley Kowalski, but it was Kazan’s screen adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) that made Brando a household name. They went on to make two more films, both timeless: “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and “On the Waterfront” (1954).
MARTIN SCORSESE AND ROBERT DE NIRO — All you have to do is list the films: “Mean Streets” (1973), “Taxi Driver” (1976), “New York, New York” (1977), “Raging Bull” (1980) “The King of Comedy” (1983), “Goodfellas” (1990), “Cape Fear” (1991), “Casino” (1995).
TIM BURTON AND JOHNNY DEPP — These two seem to bring out the best and weirdest in each other, whether it’s via “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), “Ed Wood” (1994), “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” (2005), “Corpse Bride” (2005), “Sweeney Todd” (2007) or (pure speculation) the upcoming “Alice in Wonderland.”